Where Have All the Rabbis Gone?

By Benazon, Michael | Inroads, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Where Have All the Rabbis Gone?


Benazon, Michael, Inroads


Where have all the rabbis gone? Yakov M. Rabkin, Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l'opposition juive au sionisme. Quebec City: Laval University Press, 2004. 274 pages.

HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHY, DESPITE THE CONTROVERSIAL nature of contemporary Zionism, we hear so little criticism of it from the rabbis? It would appear from Professor Yakov Rabkin's latest book that there is no shortage of criticism, just the lack of a common language between the rabbis and the media.

Rabkin has set out to demonstrate that a substantial number of rabbis have always had much to say about Zionism, the state of Israel and their relation to Judaism. He is admirably qualified to bring traditional Jewish attitudes to the attention of a wide public. Born and educated in the Soviet Union, he has taught Jewish and Soviet history at the University of Montreal for many years. He is also an Orthodox Jew with a wide range of contacts in Canada, the United States, Europe and North Africa, and he has sojourned for long periods in Israel studying, researching and talking with people from the religious and secular communities.

Au nom de la Torah has been well received in France, Morocco, Switzerland and French Quebec. Curiously, the book has not been noticed in English Canada. It is to be hoped that this will change with the appearance of an English edition, scheduled for the fall.

Readers interested in the tangled Middle East conundrum will want to know how traditional Jewish thinkers regarded and continue to view the Zionist enterprise. But Au nom de la Torah is not simply a survey of such views. Rabkin organizes Jewish commentary on Zionism into a number of categories and makes it available to academic scholars who might not be aware of its depth and complexity, while at the same time he enables the ultra-Orthodox writers to come to grips with the way academics deal with the subject.

Scholars in both camps have much to learn from each other. The ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews live a somewhat isolated life, unfamiliar with how the media and academic researchers function and how to write for them. They may also be unaware how close their conclusions are to those of the "new historians" - that group of young and middle-aged historians, sociologists and journalists, mainly based in Israel, who have been challenging traditional Zionist historiography for close to 20 years. The new historians, for their part, tend to disregard rabbinical writing because it does not follow the customary academic rules and niceties. The general reader, on the other hand, will be fascinated by a variety of thoughtful views that rarely come to public attention. Thus Rabkin prepares the ground for a long-overdue public debate on the merits and consequences of Zionism.

In presenting the arguments of traditional Jewish thinkers, Rabkin shows why Zionism is not to be identified with Judaism. Zionism has adopted and transformed Jewish festivals and even the Hebrew language to bolster its claim to be an integral part of Judaism. But in the view of many scholars and Jewish religious thinkers, the Zionists have created a secular religion, antithetical to the tenets of traditional Judaism.

The religious opponents of Zionism do not oppose the desire of individual Jews to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel so long as the local authorities adopt a welcoming attitude, but they do oppose collective attempts to return to Zion. They consequently regard Jewish life in the Diaspora as perfectly valid until such time as the Messiah appears and leads the return. Diaspora Jews, they feel, should not mortgage their future on the uncertain fate of the present state of Israel.

Who are these non-Zionist thinkers? As the title implies, Au nom de la Torah is a Torah-based criticism of Zionism. But the word Torah does not refer only to the Bible. In Judaism, much depends on the interpretation of Sacred Writ as it emerged through the ages in the Oral Law, including more recent rabbinical responses to issues of the day.

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